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Climate Change Is Keeping Therapists Up at Night

Climate Change Is Keeping Therapists Up at Night

Now lots of Bryant’s clients wanted to talk about climate change. They wanted to talk about how strange and disorienting and scary this new reality felt, about what the future might be like and how they might face it, about how to deal with all the strong feelings — helplessness, rage, depression, guilt — being stirred up inside them.

As a therapist, Bryant found himself unsure how to respond. He grew up deeply interested in science and nature — he was a biology major before his fascination with human behavior turned him toward social work — but he always thought of those interests as separate from the profession he would eventually choose. And while his clinical education offered lots of training in, say, substance abuse or family therapy, there was nothing about environmental crisis, or how to treat patients whose mental health was affected by it. He began reaching out to other counselors, who had similar stories. They came from a variety of clinical backgrounds and orientations, but none of their trainings had covered issues like climate change or environmental anxiety.

Bryant immersed himself in the subject, joining and founding associations of climate-concerned therapists. The Pacific Northwest, after all, was hardly alone in seeing scary new impacts, and lots of places were experiencing far worse. He searched for emerging research on the intersection of climate change and psychology, which was scattered across a variety of fields and journals, and eventually started a website, Climate & Mind, to serve as a sort of clearing house for other therapists searching for resources. Instead, the site became an unexpected window into the experience of would-be patients: Bryant found himself receiving messages from people around the world who stumbled across it while looking for help.

Over and over, he read the same story, of potential patients who’d gone looking for someone to talk to about climate change and other environmental crises, only to be told that they were overreacting — that their concern, and not the climate, was what was out of whack and in need of treatment. (This was a story common enough to have become a joke, another therapist told me: “You come in and talk about how anxious you are that fossil-fuel companies continue to pump CO2 into the air, and your therapist says, ‘So, tell me about your mother.’”)

In many of the messages, people asked Bryant for referrals to climate-focused therapists in Houston or Canada or Taiwan, wherever it was the writer lived. He found himself apologizing repeatedly. “I can’t,” he’d write. “The field doesn’t really exist yet.” But it was clear to him that the messages, like the smoke, were a sign of a bigger change on the way.

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Brooke Jarvis

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